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Selma Gürbüz. Photo: Jeff DeLonge/Wikipedia Commons.

Selma Gürbüz (1960–2021)

Leading Turkish artist Selma Gürbüz, known for her works depicting human-animal hybrids and shadowy, genderless figures, died April 22 in Istanbul of complications related to Covid-19. She was sixty-one. During the course of a career that spanned forty years, Gürbüz built a multidimensional practice encompassing painting, sculpture, installations, video, weaving, and engraving, all in the service of investigating femininity and the relationship between humanity and nature.

“It frightens me that we are preparing our demise with our own hands by destroying the nature that we do not own to begin with,” Gürbüz told Art Dog Istanbul earlier this year. “We do not only determine our own fate; we are also shattering natural states that are millions of years old, the ecological balance that creates life on earth, its animals and plants.”

Born in Istanbul in 1960, Gürbüz in began studying art education at Exeter College in the UK before shifting her focus to sculpture and painting at the school’s College of Art and Design, from which she graduated in 1982. She received her master’s in fine arts from Istanbul’s Marmara University in 1984, and two years later mounted her first solo show in Istanbul. One of her earliest favorite methods was the application of ink to handmade paper, a practice she began in the 1980s and would continue to employ throughout her career. She made works in a cutout style recalling those of Matisse, and began painting in oil on canvas that was often handmade, further expressing her espoused theme of connectivity. Gürbüz drew from both Eastern and Western cultures, favoring the Ottoman Chintomani motifs and Persian-style patterning of the former, and the ideas regarding light and color of the latter. Though her palette was broad, black figured heavily from the start and would continue to do so, as Gürbüz often used the hue to limn blurry scenes and indistinct, shadowy beings.

“Shadow is invincible. Nothing can overpower shadow,” Gurbüz told Global Voices in 2020. “That which is real does not change, but its shadow can change. Shadow is a two-dimensional representation. It shows us ourselves.”

The artist’s sculptures, like her paintings and drawings, frequently depicted fantastic occupants of a dreamlike world, representing kind of intercultural, and in some cases interspecies, synthesis. Gürbüz was consistently drawn to the concept of connectivity, between past and present, human and nature, myth and reality. Her work embodying this idea was additionally informed by her practice of meditation and by her use while working of a Japanese breathing technique that required her to work on her knees while holding her breath.

Gurbüz’s work is held in the collections of London’s British Museum, Paris’s Fondation Maeght, and Anakara, Turkey’s State Art and Sculpture Museum, as well as those of Istanbul Modern, Istanbul Bilgi University, SantralInstanbul, and Proje 4L, all in Istanbul. “This Place We Call World,” a retrospective emphasizing work inspired by Gürbüz’s recent trip to Africa, opened November 5, 2020, at Istanbul Modern, before the artist became ill. It remains on view through June 30.

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